Forced Labor — Optional Consumption

A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

In an important and bravely researched new book, “Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods,” Amelia Pang argues that U.S. consumers, by our spending habits, may be able to curtail China’s barbaric system of forced labor in prison camps. I wish I were as sanguine about that as she is.

In “Made in China” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2021, (278 pp.)) Pang details the forced labor and tortures the Chinese Communist Party inflicted upon the late Sun Yi, a Falun Gong practitioner, and millions of people like him. Pang’s brave research included driving rental cars to Chinese laogai, or forced-labor prisons, then following trucks that left the prisons to the distribution centers of the corporations that export products of forced labor to the United States, the European Union and elsewhere.

In addition to her good old-fashioned street reporting, Pang, a fluent Mandarin speaker, cites more than 500 sources in 47 pages of footnotes, and her bibliography cites 45 books on related subjects, a valuable contribution in itself.

Anyone who pays attention knows that China is trying to exterminate Uighur culture, as surely as it is exterminating the culture of Tibet. Reuters and the Council on Foreign Relations, citing U.S. government estimates, report 1 million to 3 million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in laogai camps, out of an Uighur population in Xinjiang of about 11 million. The Financial Times has detailed China’s “war on Uighur culture.” And China specialist Adrian Zenz reported on China’s plan to reduce Uighur birth rate to nearly zero.

I read “Made in China” as an exposé on China’s immense chain of laogai (“re-education through labor”) prison camps. But in an interview this week, Pang told me that her book “is ultimately about empowering consumers, about making educated purchasing choices, and holding our companies to … sustainability and social responsibilities.”

In her 5-page Epilogue, “What We Can Do,” Pang suggests we think twice before buying anything — from a little paper flower or an earring trinket to a computer — and ask whether it was made by slave laborers in China. And if so, to refuse to buy it, and ask the corporations involved — by letter or email or phone call — whether, and how, they audit their purchasing and sales chains to see whether they are selling products of slave labor.

I asked Ms. Pang whether she “really think(s) the average U.S. or EU consumer will undertake the 11 suggestions about quizzing corporations on their audits” that she suggests we ask, in her Epilogue.

She replied: “There’s been a surprising number of consumers who’ve reached out to me since the book came out and asked what else they could do … especially with Generation Z. They really do have a strong interest in finding out if their brands are sustainable and … about labor rights in other parts of the world.

“I’m a millennial. I’m 30 years old.” (Author’s note: All the more reason to admire her book — her first one.)

As more people of her generation and Gen Z “come of age and gain jobs and more purchasing power, you’re already seeing a lot of brands focusing on how to acquire this particular market, and how to market to them,” Pang told me.

“They’re the largest purchasing demographic in the United States: 20% of the U.S. population — and they haven’t reached their maximum purchasing power yet. … (Greta Thunberg) is representative of that generation, the sacrifice they’re willing to go to for social causes.”

Well, as I said, Amelia Pang wrote an important book, but I think the suggestions she makes in her Epilogue are pie in the sky. Here is another excerpt from our interview:

Kahn: “Suppose I want to buy a new computer. Is it possible in the U.S. today to do so without buying Chinese components or labor as a part of it? Whether it’s clothes or computers? If so, how? And if not, then what can one do?”

Pang: “It would be very hard to find, if it exists. It’s a huge problem … (including) the computers that schools are ordering (during pandemic lockdowns). A lot of these were made in Xinjiang, with slave labor. Even the raw materials you would need to buy if you wanted to build your own computers, a lot of them would have to come from China.”

China is also one of the world’s major cotton producers, accounting for 22% of global output, and 84% of China’s cotton crop comes from slave-labor-intensive Xinjiang, according to the BBC.

So how could you and I, as conscientious consumers, avoid buying shirts or skirts or pants that were made in China, or in one of the countries to which China is dumping its low-paid labor— such as Vietnam, Myanmar or El Salvador?

Pang said that’s another problem. China, she said, is trying to refocus its labor force “to high tech, and export the cheap labor jobs to other countries. The Belt and Road Initiative now involves more than 70 countries … sometimes exporting Chinese prison labor” around the world, where imported/exported slave labor is “very loosely regulated.”

And as for holding multinational corporations to account?

Pang wrote: “It is common for a major brand to have over 100,000 suppliers at the first level. But when 100,000 suppliers are subcontracting to factories that are subcontracting to other factories, even the cheapest audits can quickly become expensive.”

In a Feb. 2 review of Pang’s book, the New York Times reviewer wrote: “The Xinjiang government has offered incentives to textile companies willing to open factories near the camps. One recent report estimated that 80,000 ethnic Uighurs have been forcibly sent to factories in other parts of China.”

And here is a Human Rights Watch report on Xinjiang.

So. Let us agree that what is happening in Xinjiang and Tibet is an unconscionable campaign of human and cultural extermination, carried out by the Chinese Communist Party, under the direction of its warlord, Xi Xinping.

Now let’s see what Google has to say about all this. Should you search for Falun Gong on Google, here is your third entry:

“People also ask:

“What is bad about Falun Gong?

“Facts have shown that Falun Gong is nothing but an evil cult that has all the inherent characteristics of a cult: worship of its leader, systematic mind control, spreading heretic ideas, amassing wealth, secret organization and endangering the society.”

This entry is attributed, through roundabout ways, to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

But if you swapped out CCP or the Republican Party for Falun Gong, I think that cute little Wiki clip would be accurate. Though I’m not sure whether it’s accurate about Falun Gong.

More than 3,800 incidents of hate and harassment against Asian Americans in the United States have been reported during the pandemic, according to The Guardian.

As I was writing this column, some racist White idiot killed eight people, most of them women, most of them Asian American, in and around Atlanta, where Republican resentment against Asian Americans has been stirred for Reasons With Which We All Are Acquainted.

For all that I admire Ms. Pang’s brilliant book, I am sorry to have to say, “No. I’m sorry. I do not believe that my fellow Americans will curtail their spending habits one bit to try to curtail prison labor in China.”

I think that about half of my fellow Americans prefer to be willfully ignorant. In other words, the U.S. government doesn’t have to censor the news for us, as China does. Here in the USA, at least half of us put on our own blinders, then stumble behind a bunch of blind white people.

Finally: There is no question whether Falun Gong followers are undergoing mass roundups, torture, imprisonment and “re-education” (torture) in China, under a totalitarian government.

But let us not underestimate China. See the No. 3 Google result on Falun Gong, cited above. So how did the CCP get their bullshit propaganda to come up to No. 3 on Google?

And how could you or I do it?

Does it take a lot of money, or what?

And what does Google do with that money?

And why, and how, does Google make money that way?

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